Every summer the Vineyard Playhouse presents a Shakespeare play in the al fresco amphitheatre at the Tashmoo Overlook in Vineyard Haven, and those in the know about one of the very “funnest” things to do in the high season, are on hand to appreciate it.
They bring beach chairs and picnic baskets and some of them are intrepid enough to include little kids, and even these youngsters seem to enjoy the hour and a half spent with the bard. At last Saturday’s performance, a tow-headed boy of about four years of age devoted a good half hour to dismantling a chocolate cupcake with his tiny fingers, never once raising his eyes to the disportings on the grassy stage (but who needed him to; there would be no spot quiz for him afterwards; he was entirely engrossed in the sylvan setting and the cupcake).
This season’s offering, As You Like It, directed by Nicole Galland, is Shakespeare’s meditation on love and the ennobling effect of Nature. This latter theme is dear to Vineyarders’ hearts, considering how many of us — year-rounders and day-trippers alike — flock to these scenic woods, fields and shores to wash out the pollution and corruption of the modern world. (It must be said that in all three down Island towns at this time of year, with the traffic, the throngs competing for square inches of sidewalk and motorcycles blurp-blupping without mufflers, many of us fantasize getting away to an air conditioned studio apartment in the middle of Manhattan where peace and quiet reign and, out on the sidewalks, everyone is away in the Hamptons or on Martha’s Vineyard).
The back story for As You Like It is summed up by the early lines of exposition, “The old duke has been replaced by his younger brother, the new duke, and three or four loving lords have placed themselves in voluntary exile whose lands and revenues enrich the new duke. Therefore he gives them good leave to wander.”
For this production, the dukes new and old have been replaced by duchesses (Alesandra London-Thompson plays both), a nice touch lending Shakespeare’s already feminist play a notch up to the matriarchal.
In the initial action, another pair of courtiers, Orlando (Danny Jensen) and Rosalind (Amy Elizabeth Sabin) inadvertently give the new and mean duchess reason to banish them, and they too make their way to the old and nice duchess in the Forest of Arden, but not before they eyeball each other for the first time and engage in that unembarrassed, ultra long Shakespearean mad-about-you stare.
Shakespeare’s comedies are, above all else, about people pairing off, romantically and otherwise. In As You Like It, in addition to the romance sparked between Orlando and Rosalind, the jester Touchstone (Billy Meleady) attempts a carnal hookup with the rustic girl, Audrey (Adriana Stimola who also plays Adam and Corin), but ends up having to make an honest woman of her and an honorable clown of himself. Another country lass, Phebe (Katharine Pilcher) fulfils the Shakespeare farce quota of falling for a pseudo boy, i.e. Rosalind disguised in breeches, thus frustrating the love-sick Silvius (Mac Young, also appearing in the roles of Charles and Martext).
To satisfy another Shakespeare imperative to leave no bachelor or bachelorette dangling, in the eleventh hour, Rosalind’s luscious cousin and best friend, Celia (Chelsea McCarthy) pairs up with Orlando’s reclaimed-to-decency brother, Oliver (Walker Lewis): This way four couples can be united in matrimony in a single ceremony, saving in celebration costs and making for a grand, garlands-and-song-around the May Pole finale.
Another brand of pairs is part of As You Like It’s fabulousness: There is the triple crown of family relationships: The two sets of squabbling siblings, the duchesses and the brothers, and cousins Rosalind and Celia, are joined less by blood and more by their worth as loyal and good humans to one another; the bard clearly believes actions speak louder than blood ties. The final non romantic match-up is that between the royal court jester, Touchstone, and the aspiring comic, Jacques (Jon Olsson) whose tendency towards gloom interferes with his otherwise witty commentary as typified in his Seven Ages of Man soliloquy.
Physical comedy is key to getting laughs from Shakespearean audiences. The situations are broadly comedic, but the elaborate word-plays contain more wit than overt humor, and therefore the actors’ pratfalls, gestures and over-the-top mugging all help to keep us groundlings entertained. To this end, Nicole Galland, medievalist and novelist (The Fool’s Tale, Revenge of the Rose and Crossed: A Tale of the Fourth Crusade), creates sketch comedy with such sure-fire ploys as plopping three people down on a single tree-trunk, and she encourages the players to put over their lines with broad intent.
Mr. Meleady’s Touchstone practically levitates himself with the fun of the role. Ms. Sabin’s Rosalind conveys a heady freedom and delight at being, for however short a time, a boy and an irrepressible boy at that. Ms. McCarthy’s Celia brings to vibrant life all the Celias of the ages, starting with the very first to appear at the Globe.
Some of Shakespeare’s most unforgettable songs are here in As You Like It (“It was a lover and his lass with a hey and a ho and a hey!”) and May V. Oskan as Amiens and William, lends her beautifully honed vocal chords to the task. She also serves as music direction and with Guy Lewis developed harmony for Under The Greenwood Tree. Ms. London-Thompson as the two duchesses shows how a little fresh air can improve a ruler’s disposition. Xavier Powers fills out the cast in the role of a page and a lord.
In the Elizabethan tradition of all hands pitching in on the production, Ms. McCarthy and Ms. Sabin, with the help of the boutique L’Atelier, provided costume design and properties. Similarly actors Xavier Powers and Mac Young weighed in with stage managing and fight choreography respectively. Playhouse veteran Geneva Monks is production manager, Stephen M. Zablotny furnished poster graphics, Rosemary Haigazian and Liz Hartford handle box office and, as ever, hats off to artistic director and producer, M.J. Bruder Munafo for making all things possible for theatre on Martha’s Vineyard.
As You Like It will run Wednesdays through Sundays, until August 10 at the Tisbury Amphitheatre at the Tashmoo Overlook. Tickets are cash only at the door, $15 general admission or $10 for under age 18. The performance will go on unless it’s raining at show time.